Words make the difference no matter the medium

August 28, 2014       Herschell Gordon Lewis      

As online fundraising becomes more of a dominant medium, the cry of “Doom!” invariably attends the use of traditional media such as direct mail and space advertising.

Oh? Comparative response says otherwise. Traditional media are alive and well when their appeals are structured to mirror the basic psychology that still, in the advanced year 2014, gives them an edge for personalization. They suffer when the fingertips of semi-pros grind out apparent bulk.

Let’s take a joint cynical look at some recent mailings, not just analyzing but explaining how we either admire what they’ve done or how response could have been increased through more dynamic, more convincing, and more one-to-one use of words.

For starters, here’s envelope copy, set in a basic sans-serif typeface on a double-window envelope. It’s sent by one of the best-known family planning organizations, to an occasional but not dedicated contributor: “Annual Renewal Enclosed.” What’s your opinion of that envelope copy?

Don’t attack it because it doesn’t have even an ounce of a “Golly, Gee Willikers, thank God it’s here!” excitement. Instead, ask your own fertile mind: If you were tasked with creating envelope copy for an organization whose goals you support in a generalized way, what might you have written here to achieve a higher percentage of openings? (We all know the drill here: Percentile response from those who don’t open the envelope is a solid zero.)

Even the ancient “Personal to” or a handwritten anything would generate a higher percentage of opened envelopes. Inspirational copy such as “We need each other” or a recapitulation of the first sentence of the letter, “I can’t thank you enough” could do it but a split test would replace guesses with reality.

A mailing from a different leading nonprofit, this one dedicated to conserving the natural wonders of this country, has “Second Request” as its envelope copy. While some recipients might regard those two words as cold and businesslike, a comparative benefit of such Spartan phrasing is the automatic guilt reaction it might stimulate among others. How many others, of the total target-group? Because danger lurks here, let’s assume they’ve tested.

Smartly, instead of launching immediately into a call for money, the letter inside that envelope opens with another guilt-generator: “Did you receive our calendar?” And, competing against 2014 parallel online appeals as direct mail should, the letter is written in first-person singular – “I” – instead of the more distant first-person plural – “We.” The response device is labeled “Acceptance,” assurance that the target-individual feels in command.

(Parenthetical thought: “You are invited to apply” is a candidate for the least-motivating invitation line of this year or any other.)

One of the best-known nonprofits has two legends on its window envelope. The first, above the window, is naked child psychology, designed to get that envelope opened: “Make one donation to help feed a malnourished child, and we’ll never ask for another gift again!” A separate message, to the right of the window: “Multiply Your Gift 4 Times!”

Do you see any problems here? One is obvious: The two messages are out of sync with each other. Why use pitch, admitting initial caps on the second one? What else do you see? The exclamation point after the first one changes the tone from sincerity to advertising.

Another veteran user of direct mail, this one committed to pet adoption, on its envelope addressed to a non-member builds guilt by assumption, telling the recipient, “Your New Membership Card Enclosed.”

Anyone who has even a passing acquaintanceship with both the nonprofit world and printing costs isn’t surprised to see an almost identical legend on the face of an envelope from a national parks advocacy group … and isn’t surprised that both “Cards” aren’t printed on card stock. One is a sticker and the other just a perforated section. Does reducing production cost, but disappointing those who expect something they can display, suppress response? That’s one of the reasons to test.

(Another parenthetical point: Keeping a promise within any specific communication is an absolute. Explain and justify a deliberate mismatch and you’ll avoid even a subliminal “Yeah, I thought so” reaction.)

Oh, an extra comment that’s well beyond controversial in a 2014 ambience: The well-written and emotion-generating letter for each of these two mailings begins with the obsolete greeting “Dear Friend.” Did the same freelance source create both?

This column will discuss greetings in a future issue, but how easy it is to replace “Dear Friend” with a more motivational opening. Meanwhile, start replacing “Dear Friend” (at the latest, today). Analysis and attack aren’t synonymous. Cold-blooded analysis, whose purpose is to point out creative techniques adaptable to many nonprofit mailings, may include both positive and negative comments.

Any reaction to an outside scrutiny should lead to self-analysis. It’s not “did it pull” but “will minor changes result in the appeal pulling better?” NPT

Herschell Gordon Lewis is a professional writer who lives in Pompano Beach, Fla. He is the author of “Hot Appeals or Burnt Offerings,” an analysis of fund raising techniques. His most recent book is his 32nd — “Internet Marketing Tips, Tricks, and Tactics.” Among his other books are “On the Art of Writing Copy,” (fourth edition), “Creative Rules for the 21st Century,” and “How to Write Powerful Fund Raising Letters.” Web site is herschellgordonlewis.com